Humankind: A Hopeful History, by Rutger Bregman, Bloomsbury, 496 pp, £20, ISBN: 978-1408898932
How Not To Be Wrong: The Art of Changing Your Mind, by James O’Brien, WH Allen, 240 pp, £14.99, ISBN: 978-0753557709
Popular historian and writer Rutger Bregman created ripples in 2019 when, as a guest with a declared interest in global inequality at the Davos Economic Forum, he told his extremely privileged audience that it was time for billionaires to start paying their fair share of tax. He was not invited back.
Bregman’s previous book, Utopia for Realists was a Sunday Times and New York Times bestseller. The premise of his most recent bestseller, Humankind: A Hopeful History, is that most people harbour far more goodwill for others, and practise much more community responsibility. than has been conveyed in the past few centuries by society’s institutions of knowledge. It is a sort of pep talk persuading us that despite our fears and negative beliefs, we are essentially up to the major challenges ahead.
The author takes apart celebrated studies and events to reveal firmer grounds for more positive interpretations, with major implications for our understanding of society. Humankind has echoes of Rebecca Solnit’s 2010 book A Paradise Built in Hell, which collates accounts of how people generally rise to meet crises with resourcefulness, altruism and heroic generosity.
Bregman has stated that he believes in a future where the value of work is not determined by pay-cheque size but by the amount of happiness spread and the amount of meaning given: where the point of education is not as preparation for another useless job but for a life well-lived; and where an existence without poverty is not a privilege but a right deserved by all. He argues that utopian ideas can come true, and that every milestone of civilisation was once a complete fantasy dreamt up by people considered crazy at first – democracy, or equal rights for men and women, or the welfare state being examples.
News blinds people to possibilities because by definition it deals with the exceptional and not the norm. News is a narrative of disasters, corruption and violence consumed by mass populations to produce a nocebo effect of cynicism and pessimism. Psychologists call this state of mind “mean world syndrome”. Bregman suggests people should regularly take a step back to keep the reality of human kindness alive in the bigger picture.
These polar aspects of human beings are reflected in debates between followers of Jean Jacques Rousseau, who claimed that man is naturally good and becomes wicked through social institutions, and those of Thomas Hobbes, who argued that left to their own devices people would turn on each other. Bregman is resolutely a fan of Rousseau, until recently considered more romantic than realistic when it came to human nature. However, scientists across disciplines ‑ anthropologists, archaeologists, psychologists, sociologists ‑ have increasingly accepted evidence of humanity’s cooperative behaviour as bestowing the primary evolutionary advantage on homo cooperans.
These days biologists even talk about survival of the friendliest ‑ friendly group members having thrived and reproduced more than nasty ones. Recognising this principle requires a new view of society. Western culture has preferred veneer theory, which proposes that civilisation is only a thin surface layer, easily cracked by competition or crisis, when humanity reveals itself as selfish and brutal. Veneer theory’s influence grew after the Second World War, providing hypotheses for research like Milgram’s shock machine and the Stanford Prison Experiment in which, echoing Lord of the Flies, average well-adjusted students readily turn into sadistic monsters given the opportunity. Adam Curtis’s brilliant six-part documentary earlier this year, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World, captures how, time and again, authorities are actually the ones who fall for and act on the worst conspiracies, only to injure millions.
Bregman’s deep investigations of what really happened during a selection of milestone experiments are of pivotal significance and rectify some common far-reaching assumptions. He shows how Robert Martinson’s report, The Effectiveness of Correctional Treatment, built on Zimbardo’s 1973 academic papers to conclude that nothing works to rehabilitate prisoners. Martinson changed his mind, but to deaf ears, as James O Wilson ran with his and Zimbardo’s misanthropic views of offenders in his 1975 bestseller, Thinking About Crime, which invented the Broken Window Theory based on false accounts of the Kitty Genovese murder. Politicians believed those and other mistaken observations like the Bystander Effect, (mis-)shaping US detention policy accordingly at a time when the successful humane Norwegian model best exemplified by Director Bertsch at Halden Prison was a real option on the table. A 2015 meta-analysis disproved the Broken Window Theory, but the damage was done and remains hard to fix. Given the ongoing extremely high rate of incarceration in America, more such revisions cannot come soon enough.
Conversely, a theory initially dismissed and recently re-evaluated to be declared substantially valid was Gordon Allport’s 1954 Contact Theory, when over fifty years later, Allport’s student Thomas Pettigrew reviewed 515 studies from thirty-eight countries. When people in trouble get genuine help, instead of punishment, from others, they can heal, get back on their feet and lead full lives. Good influences transmute destiny. Bregman quotes Allport: “To despair is to misread the long lesson of history.” Anything worthwhile needs time to emerge and grow.
People prefer being decent. Study after study confirms that most find it incredibly difficult to be violent or to kill another human being, including soldiers at war, especially when the enemy is physically visible. As Bregman observes, in these situations, distance is the root of all evil, the secret to overcoming hesitancy, making computer GPS navigation and drone strikes ideal abstract assassination methods, in a similar way to how anonymous posters troll on social media but wouldn’t dare to repeat their words face to face. Given the epidemic of PTSD among soldiers, the victims of killing include the perpetrators, who break something inside themselves in the act. Although the human species has proved itself to be one of the cruellest in the animal kingdom, the damage that boomerangs back indicates this horrific behaviour is a mismatch between inner desires and environmental pressures; that while people are capable of such evil, they are not born to the dark side, and violate their own humanity in the process of stripping it from others.
Making war is not a natural inclination and needs conditioning and disciplined training to make it habitual. The most terrible things are often done in the name of friendship and loyalty, to not let the group down. In those instances, most individuals have to traumatise themselves, depersonalising to hurt others. Waging war needs lies and denial of suffering, just as the meat industry promotes the bright side of agriculture and avoids the horrors of what individual animals go through in abattoirs. Again, to please the group, people may gradually start to comply with group persecutions against their better judgement, which is why cultivating a constant alertness to the signs and symptoms of creeping dehumanisation is the best way to keep complacency at bay. Fundamentally, humans are not wired for war, according to military historian Tony Ashworth and other scholars too.
Bregman describes poverty as structural violence preventable by a universal basic income which would provide a floor in income distribution, ensuring nobody starved or was deprived of healthcare, education, housing and other essentials. This is another idea now moving mainstream but not long ago deemed decidedly fringe. Studies on the investment value of eradicating poverty are mounting, showing the win-win potential of direct aid. Ensuring citizens have enough to get socially involved reduces public spending need. In contrast, bonuses for the already well-off may actually dampen motivation or pervert performance, as Edward Deci and Daniel Ariely showed. Society should support what self-motivates. A well-functioning participatory democracy requires engagement, trust, inclusion, citizenship, transparency, solidarity, and dignity. Bregman cites the writings of Nobel-winning political scientist Elinor Ostrom on governing the commons as the most promising economic model.
Fears of inflation can be managed through prudent and fair taxation. A functioning capitalist economy would tax the rich to fund schemes like a universal basic income, and has done so occasionally in the past when marginal or inheritance tax rates rose to 90 per cent. Even many wealthy people nowadays consider the tiny taxes paid by their peers a real scandal, although some, exemplified by Tucker Carlson when interviewing Bregman on Fox News, still go apoplectic at the prospect of contributing to the public purse instead of draining it in subsidies and other hand-outs.
Rutger Bregman provides a lot of evidence that it really is only a few bad eggs who are causing the world’s worst problems. Most people just want to get along. In the old days, the queue jumpers and robber barons wouldn’t have gotten a look-in but would rather have been booted out of the tribe as too disruptive. People are normally considerate and generous and glad to help neighbours in difficulty. Institutions and leaders with power are most susceptible to psychopathic episodes, and need most restraint. The sooner everybody starts re-engaging in their communities, the sooner living arrangements can be adapted as needed.
In his epilogue, Bregman lists ten rules to live by:
No 1: When in doubt, assume the best
N. 2: Think in win-win scenarios
No 3: Ask more questions
No 4: Temper your empathy, train your compassion
No 5: Try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they are coming from
No 6: Love your own as others love their own
No 7: Avoid the news
No 8: Don’t punch Nazis
No 9: Come out of the closet: don’t be ashamed to do good
No 10: Be realistic
James O’ Brien is a presenter with the leading UK talk radio station LBC. “I’m not holier than thou, just luckier,” he admits. He uses examples from his own on-air dialogues, various “penny drop moments” triggered by his callers, to tease out errors in his own and listeners’ assumptions, with their ingrained othering inclinations. Discussions on vegetarianism, antisemitism, transgenderism, and the trustworthiness of tattooed people provide material, He comes clean on his tendency to be cruel and smug for clicks and laughs, and on the temptation to foment blame in the interest of creating more drama. This earnest recipe makes for an absorbing fast read of his popular book How Not To Be Wrong: The Art of Changing Your Mind. As he notes, “there is no point in having a mind if you never change it.”
O’Brien believes questioning what we think and feel, and why, is more important than ever because all too often he encounters “open-mindedness derided as weakness, admissions of fallibility held up as evidence of deliberate dishonesty, and, most incredibly, the widespread embracing of demonstrably dangerous and dishonest positions purely to upset the ‘other side’”. And, relating his own therapy journey and numerous wrong views, he cites a personal reason: “most of us who have cultivated a ‘survival personality’ do not recognise or want to be told that we became what we needed to be and abandoned our authentic selves.”
Even those bred into entitlement often furiously construct certainties to keep life’s non-predictabilities at bay. O’Brien has noticed how often society is expected to trust such people who, being blind to their own pain, fail to empathise with the struggles of others, even while their agendas shape the unrepresentative facade of public debate. Everybody loses with populism, when “politicians are propelled to power on a promise to hurt one section of society, while pledging to address the imagined or exaggerated grievances of another”. With hatred fuelling this warped power, scapegoats are then cultivated through narratives that persuade people to vote against their own interests, geographical accidents of birth being hailed as achievements.
Recipients of many head-starts, on discovering the world is not totally their oysters (a category O’ Brien partly identifies with), may seek out imputed culprits for vengeance. As one of his callers observed, “when you have privilege, equality feels like oppression”.
Recounting discussions about stop and search, he says that experiences count far more than opinions when weighing up whether behaviours are right or wrong, and what is happening in practice, not just in principle. He learned that many young men armed themselves not to commit crime but to defend themselves against it, in situations of few options. The frightening people are in fact frightened. Blaming a common denominator like blackness without taking facts into account is a lazy popular reflex. Those most exposed to risks of casual violence and illegal drug fall-outs are ignored by police busy coddling prosperous suburbanites. Citing Malcolm Gladwell in Talking to Strangers, O’ Brien learned that crime exists in local hotspots crying out for heavy policing, even though law enforcers make offenders of non-affluent citizens everywhere.
The trans debate poses challenges that cross-cut all the other dilemmas, involving language, biology, and cultural identity, pitting victimised groups against each other. O’Brien pleads for honest public conversations allowing parties to be heard as the only path to illumination and accommodation of all types of diversity, whether innate or chosen. Preventing people from expressing their views is counterproductive. Failure to develop compassion for negative experiences that make us who we are is generally what is behind a lack of empathy for what others are going through, and related hyped outcries. Trauma begets crippled adults who need to do some inner work to be become more fully human, rather than complicit in fabrications that hurt people.
Both Bregman and O’Brien point to our better angels and innate strong reciprocity, demonstrating that despite differences we can communicate and cooperate peacefully, with caveats that a continual honest watchfulness and willingness to share are necessary to maintain social justice and bring about healthier changes. Alternatively, we could pass the task of manifesting tomorrow’s world to tech billionaires as they devise elite futuristic space cities and leave the majority behind, or rely on traditional military defence, responsible for record levels of greenhouse gas emissions and therefore, with Planet Earth in the throes of climate change, no longer fit for the purpose of security anyway. Business as usual spells disaster. Trust to collaborate and innovate solutions is vital.
New books about the urgency of switching directions and practices appear regularly now, and the two reviewed here deserve a place in the pile worth scouring. The challenges before humanity require people to work together like never before, making insights about friction control all the more valuable. A lot is at stake. In Edmund Burke’s words, “Society … becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”
Caroline Hurley creates articles, stories and reviews for diverse publications including Dublin Review of Books, Ireland’s Own, Arena Magazine (au), Village Magazine, Books Ireland, Counterpunch and The Caterpillar. She lives in Cloughjordan Ecovillage and is a member of Feasta and World Beyond War.